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Why is ‘ambitious’ a dirty word for female candidates?

Bonnie Cash

Last April, I wrote an op-ed for these pages calling out the sexist double standards that the six women running for the Democratic nomination at that time were facing. I showed that not only were women running getting overlooked by the media and receiving less coverage than the men, but the coverage they did get was also overwhelmingly negative. In particular, women were more likely to be described as “ambitious,” a term meant as a slur, not a compliment. The piece went viral and was picked up by the Daily Show. They did a spoof ridiculing this kind of blatant misogyny. Women everywhere nodded in agreement. A year later, nothing has changed.

Explosive reporting from CNBC found that Biden “insiders” were actively campaigning against the prospect of Kamala Harris as VP because she is “too ambitious” struck a nerve. Twitter lit up immediately with comments from women everywhere, pointing out the outrageous sexist double standard that is so glaring in a story like this.

You may feel Harris is not the right person for the ticket based on the disorganization and infighting reported from her presidential run. Or there may be strategic reasons why a senator for California is not the right choice. But targeting Harris based on her ambition is deeply offensive blatant sexism. 

Biden will announce his VP pick next week, and interest is running high. He has committed to picking a woman, and there’s the widespread belief it is likely to be a Black woman. There are many highly qualified, talented women running, but the ambition trope leaked from the campaign gives us a small preview of what’s to come to no matter who he picks.

Women everywhere are bracing for a barrage of sexist and thinly veiled racist attacks likely to head her way, whoever she is. We’ve seen it all before. Women who dare to have ambition, who want to lead at the highest levels and ask others to support them in their do so are expected to become an impossible combination of kind, warm, modest, tough but not too tough, hardworking but not driven, pretty but not too sexy, smart but not a know it all. These pervasive double standards are so impossible no wonder we’ve not yet elected a woman president. Who could meet these impossible standards?

It should be obvious to everyone how ridiculous the ambition trope is. How is anyone expected to rise to high office or high achievement without it? And yet for women, the undercurrent is one of cold, ruthless calculation. None of these subtle and destructive implications apply to ambitious men. They are rewarded for their ambition. In the case of Harris, the implication that her ambition makes her disloyal to Biden because she would dare to seek the Presidency herself encapsulates centuries of sexism that continue to hold all women back. Vice President Biden should call it out and shut it down immediately. Regardless of if he decides to pick Harris, the narrative sets women back.

It’s worth noting that while we may celebrate the milestone of a female Democratic vice presidential nominee next week, it’s been 36 years since Geraldine Ferraro broke that barrier. Fifty-nine other nations have elected a female head of state. This month marks the Centenary of the 19th Amendment, and yet the U.S. ranks 86th in the world for the political empowerment of women. Yes, there is a historic number of women in Congress, but it’s still barely 25 percent. Barely 5 percent of CEO’s of major companies are female. Why is the United States so slow to get to anything like gender equity in positions of power? Because as a society, we cannot move past the pervasive sexist double standards that hold women back.

As we speed into the last 90 days of the 2020 presidential cycle, it’s incumbent on everyone in the campaigns, in the press and in public to challenge ourselves not to repeat and reinforce the same old sexist tropes that hold back not only women running for high office but women everywhere. We can do better, and it’s way past the time that we did. 

Lauren Leader is the co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to women’s political education and empowerment. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenleaderAIT.

Tags American women in politics Discrimination Kamala Harris

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